In Memoriam for Jeanne Leiby

Jeanne_Leiby .png Jeanne Leiby, an accomplished writer, teacher, and editor, passed away in a car accident on April 19, 2011, near Baton Rouge, where she lived and worked as the editor of The Southern Review. Only 46 when she died, Jeanne was able to inspire, instruct, motivate, and otherwise touch the lives of many young and established writers throughout the country, including many of us here at The Southeast Review. To celebrate Jeanne's life and accomplishments, we asked her friends and colleagues to complete the following sentence: "Jeanne Leiby changed my life as a writer by ...," or tell a story about Jeanne. We offer these brief personal anecdotes as a tribute to the life she lived and the work she continues to inspire.
 
Many thanks to everyone who has helped us celebrate Jeanne here. If you would like to contribute to this page, please email the editor at southeastreview@gmail.com.
 
To read an obituary for Jeanne Leiby, [click here].
 
To read Jeanne Leiby's "Why I Call" from the The Southern Review, [click here].
 
To listen to a Q&A Jeanne Leiby conducted with FSU students and faculty in March of 2008, [click here].
 
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Jeanne had the guts to say what she thought, when others don't. I loved that about her. Admired it deeply. Julianna Baggott, blog posted April 20th, 2011
 

 
Jeanne Leiby's first collection of short stories, Downriver, was published by Carolina Wren Press as the 2006 winner of the Doris Bakwin prize.

Chris Wiewiora

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If I had to give one word to describe my studies at the University of Central Florida I would use: serendipitous. In the fall of my sophomore year, I took the introduction to creative writing class because my brother, who was an English major, suggested I try it out; in the spring, I entered a poetry workshop because it was the only one available; and at the end of the school year, I was encouraged by a poetry classmate to intern for The Florida Review. I sent an e-mail asking if I could get involved, I was invited to stop by the office, and then I was interviewed for the summer internship by Jeanne Leiby.

When I came into The Florida Review office, I had no idea what would happen: I had no idea that Jeanne would be able to pronounce my last name correctly. I had no idea she would ask me if I had read Wislawa Szymborska (I embarrassingly didn't know the Polish poet). I had no idea that Jeanne would (nonetheless) accept me as an intern. I had no idea that that summer I would read at least a thousand poems from the slushpile. I had no idea that one of the poems that I passed along to the poetry editor would be accepted by Jeanne. I had no idea I would be in that same office in the fall for independent study and read the entire bookshelf of literary magazines The Florida Review exchanged with. I had no idea that one year later I would be in that office again as the editor in chief of The Cypress Domethe student creative literary magazine at UCF. I had no idea that I would quit my job as a barista for a corporate coffeehouse and in the spring get paid (paid!) via a work study grant to read and edit for The Florida Review. I had no idea that after Jeanne left for The Southern Review that I would be the last of the previous Florida Review crew. I had no idea that under Jocelyn Bartkevicius the next editor I would go to my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference held in Chicago.

But I did know that Jeanne was the one I would visit, initially because she was the only one I knew at AWP, but also Jeanne was the seed to all those ideas. And every year since that first AWP, I would always go to see Jeanne and she would stop the conversation she was in to hug me, introduce me to who she was speaking to, then ask how I was doing, give me a copy of The Southern Review, and finally she would always tell me to keep in the editing loop.

It's serendipitous that when I checked The Southern Review's blog that it had Jeanne's posthumous post on "Poems I'm Glad to Know;" and that out of five poems Jeanne showcased, the last one was "A View With a Grain of Sand" by Wislawa Szymborska. For me, the last stanza of that poem could easily be how I felt when I heard Jeanne had died:

Time has passed like courier with urgent news.
But that's just our simile.
The character is inverted, his haste is make believe,
his news inhuman.

In times of death and then shock, anger, grief, and everything else after, I believe poetry is a good place to turn to. Not for answers, but for considering mysteries. And so, I have gone back to that first poem "Ode to Silkworms" by CJ Evans that I plucked out of the slushpile during my internship and was published in the last Florida Review that Jeanne edited; and in my shock of Jeanne's death, these lines have stuck with me:

"at the apex of its flight. How stars can burn hotter,
then close their mouths over planets like almonds

with no warning, grind them to dust. ..."

Chris Wiewiora, former assistant editor of The Florida Review


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Janice Eidus

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eidus_bookcover.pngJeanne and I called ourselves "The Locked Elbow Girls." This meant that whenever we got together we immediately locked our elbows tighteven before we kissed hello. We did this to symbolize the fact that we were good friends who "had each other's back." Beneath our respective auras of bravado and confidence, we both felt vulnerable and in need of comfort. We had made a commitment to each other. I miss her.

Janice Eidus
, author of The Last Jewish Virgin


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William Giraldi

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C.S. Lewis begins his meditation A Grief Observed with the immortal line, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear." My life has been so pervaded by the young deadmy parents, relatives, friendsthat you'd think I'd have grown quite accustomed to the news, the phone call in the night, the fanged grief that bites like fear. Why fear? Not because the newly dead put us in mind of our own mortality, the earth that waits for us, our inevitable exit, but because we are afraid of living without that loved one, afraid of the vacuum, of experiencing the world with a new black hole in it. Jeannie's absence is indeed a black hole for me: it has a frightful gravity. We won't ever grow accustomed to the young and beloved ripped away from us by a reaper too grim even for his own good. We can't. Because our deaths are always an outrage, an insult. Lewis battled with his God, his Christ, over the abrupt filching of his wife. He shook his fist at the vacant sky and yet still had the tenacity to believe. He fought so hard through that dark night of the soul. He was so forgiving of the savagery surrounding us. He imagined God saying: But, child, you just don't understand. Well of course we don't. The newly dead threaten to make us religious, or, worse, sentimental. Jeannie called me "little brother." I called her "big sister." When my son was born she sent him bookends, well-made A-B-C bookends, because, she told me, everyone gives books but no one thinks to give bookends. Sometimes, in the morning, I forget she's gone. Here are lines from W.S. Merwin that aid me each day: "What you remember saves you. To remember/ Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never/ Has fallen silent." In that way, Jeannie's voice is with me still.

William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters


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Sean Prentiss

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Jeanne Leiby did not change my life as a writer, and I only met her once, at AWP Washington D.C., so I can barely claim to know her. But in the fifteen minutes of talking, she was so excited and lively the entire time, so much so that she asked me to consider starting a major project with her once she realized we had similar connections. And by the end of the conversation, she gave me a Southern Review tee shirt to wear (only if I promised to take a photograph of me wearing it and send it to the magazine's website). Jeanne and I never did work on the project. But I did send the Southern Review a photograph of me rock climbing in the tee shirt. I was able to meet Jeanne for only fifteen minutes, but they were a wonderful, exciting, fifteen minutes filled with ideas and laughter. That's about as good as it can get.

Sean Prentiss
, Asst. Professor of Writing, Grand Valley State University


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John Dufresne

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I expected to see Jeanne Leiby at least twice a year, at AWP and at the Sanibel Island Writers' Conference. Every time we met we picked up our last conversation in mid-sentence. And we weren't finished talking. I don't like this silence. I want my friend back, goddamnit. Jeanne was generous and funny; she was honest, smart, and without pretense. Those of us she left behind will be telling Jeanne Leiby stories to each other for a long, long time.

John Dufresne
, author of Requiem, Mass.


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James Claffey

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Jeanne Leiby changed me as a writer because she told me the unvarnished truth, always. I met with Jeanne frequently in her office at the Old President's House where she edited The Southern Review, and more often than not we'd step outside so she could smoke a cigarette and kvetch about the latest political issue, or the amazing excerpt from Mark Richard's House of Prayer No.2 that she was so proud of publishing in the review and trumping Harper's in the process.

Jeanne loved writers. She loved Bonnie Jo Campbell. She loved William Gay. She loved Philip Levine. She loved Janice Eidus. Jeanne hated my metaphors. I hated my metaphors, too. With her guidance I wrote my MFA thesis, a novel. The pages she marked with her strange diagrams about structure, and the terse comments that read, "slow down," "why is this here," "slow down," "too sentimental," "slow down," "write into the scene," sit on my desk, festooned with her colored Post-It notes, her fingerprints all over those pages. I hear her voice when I sit at the computer to edit the manuscript and try to slow down and write through the scenes.

We were a year apart in age, Jeanne and me, and that's part of why we got each other. We shared those cultural references that sailed over the heads of the younger writers in class. Jeanne made me believe in myself as a writer, by holding my feet to the fire, forcing me to look, to really look at my words. That first class with Jeanne, she said the most obvious thing about a story: "Every story is about someone, who wants something, and does or doesn't get it because of something." Jeanne applied that formula to our stories and drummed into us the importance of simplicity in storytelling. I start my undergraduate workshops with her formula now.

I can't bear to tell the story of how I want Jeanne Leiby to be alive, and I can't have that because of a terrible twist of fate. See, the formula applies to life, too. That Jeanne is gone is terrible. I can't believe I won't hear her rave about Sanibel Island anymore, nor about the GCACWT conference in Fairhope, nor will we have dinner at AWP and complain about the slow service. Instead, I will continue to write, because that's what mattered to Jeanne, and that's what matters to me. We arrived at LSU about the same time, the first graduate class she taught was my first class, too. Now, I am finished at LSU, bound for an avocado farm on the Californian coast, and Jeanne is no longer there either. I'll raise a Diet Coke to Jeanne's memory when I get home, and know that she'll always be with me wherever that may be.

James Claffey, Nonfiction Editor of The New Delta Review


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Tom DeMarchi

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Like a lot of people, the professional relationship I had with Jeanne Leiby eventually evolved into a friendship. So I will miss her as a colleague, of course, but mostly as a friend.

The first time I met Jeanneat the 2005 Miami Book Fairshe was standing behind a table at The Florida Review booth. I mentioned that I was planning my first writers conference.

She leaned over the table and said, "Here's my card. We need to talk about getting UCF students there. And we should partner in some way, get The Florida Review there as a significant presence. You need to hold a contest. I can help you organize that. How are you marketing? Okay, here's what you need to do: Launch a marketing campaign that combines a grassroots flyer brigade and national magazine advertisements. Web presence is huge. You need to link with every online journal and writers group. There are tons of them in Florida, but why limit yourself? Go national. Have you looked into writers groups? You should offer group rates. Student rates, too. You must attract as many students as you can. Will there be cocktails?"

She said this in one exhaled breath of cigarette smoke.

I took her card, said I'd be in touch, and staggered to the next booth, my head buzzing.

Our paths didn't cross again until three years later, after she'd been made editor of The Southern Review. A mutual friend, William Giraldi, suggested that I invite Jeanne to my next conference, which I did. She arrived with the same enthusiasm, the same head full of ideas, surrounded in the same cloud of cigarette smoke.

At the end of the conference she pulled me aside and said, "Send me some of your writing. And don't worryI don't have a problem rejecting or accepting work from people I know. But I'll definitely read it. And you have my personal e-mail address. That's a perk pals get."

Over the next three years I submitted stories, poems, and an interview with Steve Almond. She rejected everything, and didn't sugarcoat why:

-"Your story's interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. Your use of language ... I think you might be a poet."

-"Your poems are lovely but the line breaks are almost too perfect. Be bold. Be irreverent."

-"This interview is fun but a little too fun for The Southern Review. It's the Tom and Steve show, which is great and all, but I'm not sure our readership is looking for this level of irreverence."

Jeannie didn't sugarcoat praise for the writers she admired, either:

-"Bonnie Jo Campbell is it."

- "Lynne Barrett is a genius."

- "Talking on the phone with Phil Levine about some poetry we'd just accepted was one of the highlights of my life."

We saw each other at conferences, maybe twice a year. But hardly a week went by when we didn't talk on the phone, e-mail or instant message on Facebook. A little box would appear on my screen that said, "You there? I need to talk." We talked about writing and mutual friends and ways of raising money for The Southern Review (she worried constantly about budget cuts and losing staff). We talked about her devotion to longbow archery.

Two years ago, when my infant son was in the hospital, Jeannie called and e-mailed to check on his condition, and said she was always there to talk if I needed an ear. Here's one of her e-mails:

"Tom,

"I hope the little man is doing well. I haven't met him, but I consider myself his absent auntand, just so we're clearthat would be 'Aunt Gigi'... I will so encourage him to behave badly, get tattooed, and play the drums. But I will also encourage him to have great penmanshipa fast-dying skill."

I hope readers will forgive me for quoting so many personal notes from and conversations with Jeannie, and for giving the impression that our friendship was deeper than it was. I did consider Jeannie a dear friend. She took the time to call and write regularly, to check up on me, to encourage my writing, to ask about my son's health, and to offer support for the conference I direct. (Her support and encouragement went beyond conversations. Jeannie presented at the conference twice for free because she loved teaching so much and knew that I had such a small operating budget.) Plus, I figure the best way to give people who didn't know Jeannie a sense of her voicethe blend of professional and personal, the humor, the energyis to quote her.

But now that Jeannie's died and the memories and tributes come pouring in, I know that our relationship/friendship wasn't all that unique. There are countless testimonials about Jeannie's generosity, her thoughtfulness, her intelligence, her artistry.

Beth Ann Fennelly told me, "Jeannie was this big fresh breeze from the Midwest full of un-fake-able enthusiasm and earnest good humor and loyalty, and just enough wickedness to keep her from being too too good.

Which is to say that no one's perfect, and it'd impossible to love someone if she were.

Jeannie wasn't perfect. She smoked too much. She offered unsolicited/unvarnished opinions about nearly everything (i.e. she could be pushy). Despite a successful publishing record and winning the Doris Bakwin Award, she was insecure about her talent: I assigned my students Downriver and told Jeannie they'd connected with her stories. I said, "You're a great writer." In response, she said, "I'm not all that good a writer, but I appreciate your praise. I'm sloppy, self-indulgent, and myopic. And I no longer have any confidence in my writing. But that's not a bad thing." She allowed herself to be vulnerable.

Saddest of all, she drove without a seatbelt.

But she loved intensely. She lived enthusiastically. She gave of herself selflessly. She connected with others quickly, deeply, personally. She had that ability, that charisma, to make those in her orbit feel valued, listened to. Special.

She called.

Due to snowstorms and canceled flights, I missed this year's AWP Conferencean event that I'd come to think of as The Annual Jeannie Reunion Conference. Here's a message she sent after the conference ended:

"I missed you at AWP. More than you will ever know. It was a good conference. TSR did well, but it was sad and lonely that you weren't there."

And I, like a lot of people, miss you, Jeannie. More than you will ever know.

Tom DeMarchi, Director of the Sanibel Island Writers Conference


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Nick Mainieri

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If Jeanne believed in you, she made sure you knew it. She did it for me, when all I ever was to her was a name on a cover letter. She was the one to say, "You got something, kid. Keep it up." And when she called to tell you she liked something you wrote and wanted to publish it, she'd say, "I told you so, remember?" It was easier to believe in myself when I knew that Jeanne did, too.

—Nick Mainieri
, contributor to The Southern Review


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Quinn Dalton

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In the meantime, here's another Jeanne post from Quinn Dalton: I chose Jeanne Leiby's collection, Downriver, for the Carolina Wren Press contest in 2006. There were other strong entries that year, I remember, but when I started reading her stories, I couldn't stop. Though nothing in them was predictable, the voice felt like one I knew--or it knew meand I was hooked. Of course, I knew nothing about Jeanne when I was reading her collection. But once I'd made my choice, I was gratified to learn that she had dedicated her life to writingnot just to her own, but to that of students and other writers as a teacher and editor. And when I met her, I understood why The Southern Review had made the smart decision to hire her. Obviously, we had a nice connection because of how our paths had crossed. But it wasn't something we worked too hard at. We saw each other at conferences and just picked up where we left off. We took pleasure in ittwo writers who admired each other's work. Because of this, I only had a sliver of an idea of who she wasa powerful personality, a driving spirit--someone I could count on to keep writing, to keep loving writing, someone I would get to see next time, at the next conference or festival, and we would smile, and still know each other, and the frenzy of those kinds of events would seem a bit less daunting to me, a bit more worthwhile. When I last saw her at AWP, Jeanne said she thought it was time I sent her a story. I said, "Do you think that's OK?" On some level I had been a little sad I couldn't send to the Southern Review, because I had always wanted to try to publish a story there, but I wouldn't have wanted it thought by anyone that any resulting success was a favor returned. And she said, "What, you think you have to wait until I'm dead before you send to the Southern Review again?" Classic Jeanne. I mailed her a story the day she died. In my letter, I asked if I would see her in Greensboro at the upcoming Independent Press Festival, which she had attended in the past, or certainly in Chicago in 2012 for AWP, yes? Next time? Jeanne, I'll still look forward to it.

—Quinn Dalton, author of Stories from the Afterlife

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Jeanne Leiby changed me by modeling real generosity of spirit at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference. She walked right up to the president of our university and told him what made our little conference unique. He was truly impressed by what she had to say. She didn't have to advocate for us, but she did, immediately, instinctively. The following night, he declared from the stage that it was time for a Creative Writing major at our university. I think Jeanne's enthusiasm made a huge impact—and that she operated that way everywhere she went. She will be terribly missed.

—Karen R. Tolchin
, author of Part Blood, Part Ketchup: Coming of Age in American Literature and Film

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Jeanne Leiby changed my life as a writer by scolding me on Facebook. She’d already changed my life once, by accepting my fiction for The Southern Review; three years later, when another editor might have let the story, or me, fade from her memory, Jeanne saw a status update I’d made on Facebook about a meeting. She immediately sent me a private message to tell me to be careful what I posted. My first response was dismay, then even annoyance; I tend to be neurotically circumspect about what I post online, and I worried that Jeanne had received the wrong impression of me. Which was, of course, exactly what she was warning me about. As we messaged back and forth, all was forgiven, and more—“I really want the best for great writers,” she wrote, and I responded, “thanks for caring enough about me to say something.” I should have added, “thank you for still feeling connected to me as a writer and a person, years after you were my editor, and for wanting and helping the writing world to be a place where we all look out for each other.

—Caitlin Horrocks, author of This is Not Your City


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April Manteris

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Jeanne Leiby changed my life as a writer by telling me, upon reading some of my poetry during a visit the first year of my MFA, that she saw flashes of genius. It wasn't flattery. She urged me, without hesitation or a gentle tongue, to begin there, with those moments, because the rest didn't hold up to them. Her honesty and encouragement remain foundational in my revision process, in what I expect from myself and what my poems expect from me.

April Manteris
, Poetry PhD student, FSU

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Jeanne Leiby changed my life as a writer by ... Showing a buoyant passion for literary journals and the writing life on an editors' panel we co-chaired at a conference several years ago; her zeal helped reawaken my own enthusiasm that had been languishing at that point. Her energy and generosity were always contagious!

Michael Trammell, Editor, Apalachee Review

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Andrew Ervin

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Jeannie was a visionary editor, someone who painted in strokes broader than anyone else thought were possible. She had big ideas, all the time.

Andrew Ervin, author of Extraordinary Renditions

For more about Jeanne Leiby, go to [Andrew Ervin's blog].

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Jeanne Leiby changed my life as a writer by ... giving me a hard time for veering from my post as upholding all things literary. I explained that I wasn't interested in that role. I wanted to storm the gates of what has been—for so long—ghettoized as genre. I wanted to get dirty and see what I could do in those worlds with language. Honestly, Jeanne was telling me what I think a lot of people from the literary world would like to tell me—Stop messing around. Get serious. Come back to us with all your muscle. Don't pull any punches. Jeanne had the guts to say what she thought, when others don't. I loved that about her. Admired it deeply. I convinced her that I was still swinging—more viciously than ever. And that what I find in genre is a kind of deep liberation and challenge. Basically, I said, "Come with me. Storm some gates." Right at the end of the night, she sat back in her deck chair and confessed that if she could write anything—anything at all—she'd write noir thrillers. And so it came full circle. And she was right about the story I sent her. It was too David Lynch for her. It belonged to the dark finery of my subconscious and it burrowed its way into PURE, the post-apocalyptic novel that'll come out next year. I had my inscription for Jeanne already in mind. It began: For you, Jeanne, and the David Lynch in you. I know it's there.

Julianna Baggott, Consulting Editor, SER

For more about Jeanne Leiby, go to [Julianna Baggott's blog].

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Katie Cortese

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Jeanne Leiby changed my life as a writer and editor by calling me to tell me my story didn't make it into The Southern Review. There are few editors who call about acceptances and almost none who phone about close calls, but Jeanne was determined to change the way literary journals work. She wanted to use them to forge community. She changed The Southeast Review, at the very least, and I know her example won't stop there.

Katie Cortese, Editor, SER

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